Catholic Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The North American experience of Catholicism is tempered by the fact that English-speaking North America’s major spiritual impulses were Northern European, Protestant, and anti-Catholic. By the time of the emergence of distinct American immigrant identities in the late nineteenth century, Roman Catholicism in North America had almost ceased to be regarded as a mainstream faith. Literature focusing on Catholicism tended to be as marginalized as the North American adherents of the Roman Catholic faith. Many works that treat Catholicism, then, also treat ethnicity and culture, including that of the immigrant. For example, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy (1935), set in Depression-era Chicago, and Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (1956), detailing the rise and fall of an Irish Catholic Boston politician, are typical Roman Catholic ethnicity fictions, nearly a genre in their own right.

Often, an author whose works might be regarded as Catholic is categorized differently. For example, early twentieth century author Willa Cather, who utilizes Catholic themes and settings in works such as Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931), is more likely to be found categorized as a frontier novelist, because of her locales, or as a woman author.

Ernest Hemingway was a convert to Roman Catholicism for the sake of an early marriage, and many of his novels and stories are set in...

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The Twentieth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Two events in the 1960’s brought changes in the general public’s perception of the Catholic identity. First, Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1960 finally defused a long-standing tradition of anti-Catholicism in American life. Second, beginning in 1962, the Second Vatican Council initiated reforms in the Catholic church. These reforms had great influence on social and cultural aspects of the Catholic identity. The Church sought to make its teachings more in tune with the moral crises and social realities of the postindustrial, materialist cultures that dominated the twentieth century. These reforms resulted in alterations in the stereotype of Catholics as archaic, dogmatic individuals. One may cite J. F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban (1962) as a turning point in North American Catholic literature. In its gentle, realistic satire of a Roman Catholic priest, the novel presents Catholic life in America as mainstream, not as part of ethnic literature only. Father Urban Roche, the main character, also helps defeat stereotypes of Catholics simply by not partaking of them. In the novels of Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest who writes about Roman Catholic priests, the issues of conflict between faith and worldliness take on, as they do in Powers’ work, a wide cultural appeal. Greeley’s novels, such as The Cardinal Sins (1981) and The Brother’s Wife (1982) have been best-sellers.

Challenges to Faith

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The general breakdown of religious faith seems to be a hallmark of twentieth century literature. In works such as Walker Percy’s Love Among the Ruins (1971) and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) and Brian Moore’s Catholics (1972), a time is envisioned in which the sacramental nature of the Church has been forgotten.

Other writers, concerned with the secularism of the twentieth century, have made Catholicism a symbol for religious faith in general. In Andre Dubus’ “A Father’s Story,” the protagonist’s Catholicism becomes a metaphor for all faith. On the other hand, the sendup of Roman Catholicism in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955) stands as a satire of religious fraud in general. His characters often fail to find religious experience, even when it is right before their eyes. Faith in Christ, rather than Catholicism specifically, is often the concern in the works of Flannery O’Connor. A reader of her two novels Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), if unfamiliar with O’Connor’s Catholic background, may imagine them an outgrowth of a Southern evangelical and Fundamentalist experience. Southern Fundamentalist culture shaped O’Connor’s identity and her vision, but her works may be read from the perspective of her Roman Catholic beliefs in the sacramental presence of God. O’Connor’s fictions are, ultimately, nothing but Catholic.

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

It is not very likely that Roman Catholicism will benefit much from emphasis on fostering a respect for multiculturalism in American society, since Catholicism has become perceived as Eurocentric and patriarchal. Catholicism is, perhaps, representative of the cultural status quo, which is undergoing challenge and revision. As cultural pluralism and inclusionary studies gain acceptance, however, the extensive body of literature defining American Catholic identity should become more widely recognized for having contributed to the American identity.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Franchot, Jenny. Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Since Catholicism in literature also deals with religious bigotry and intolerance, readers would do well to start with this fascinating and extremely scholarly account of the forms and uses of anti-Catholicism in nineteenth century American fiction.

Friedman, Melvin J., ed. The Vision Obscured: Perceptions of Some Twentieth Century Catholic Novelists. New York: Fordham University Press, 1970. Articles on Powers and O’Connor do much toward defining the Catholic identity of what otherwise is intended as, and is critically received as, mainstream literature.

Gandolfo, Anita. Testing the Faith: The New Catholic Fiction in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Argues that the Second Vatican Council changed American Catholic fiction. Provides a comprehensive introduction to the American Catholic literary scene.

Kellogg, Jean. The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970. Limited to those writers who advance a Roman Catholic point of view. Focuses on Powers and O’Connor.

Messbarger, Paul R. Fiction with a Parochial Purpose: Social Use of American Catholic Literature, 1884-1900. Brookline: Boston University Press, 1971. Examines how American Catholics used fictions to define their emerging identity in a largely non-Catholic culture.